Michael Elégbèdé doesn’t just break from western ideas of fine dining, but aims to revive a deeper appreciation of Nigerian food among Nigerians, too
After wine and canapes on a patio overlooking high-rises and greenery in an affluent part of Lagos, 15 guests assemble inside. They sit facing one another across a long dining table, brightly lit by a steel row of low-hanging lights. Nigerian cultural masks and artworks adorn the walls of the restaurant, which evokes a Nigerian home.
The dishes emerge: traditional egusi soup, but with the efo (spinach) crisp amaranth leaves. Grains of gari, or cassava root, typically pounded to make a kind of dough called eba, is instead lightly dusted over it. Unusually, there are croutons. “An egusi crouton,” a guest nods approvingly.
The guests come to Ìtàn, set in a converted apartment, for a playful and political recasting of Nigerian food and fine dining, away from the Lagos-dominated version embodied by popular dishes such as jollof rice. Instead, the menus often lean on the rich diversity of Nigeria’s culinary landscape..
“My idea is for Ìtàn to conjure pride in the way people feel about their food. It makes it so beautiful to watch people’s faces brighten up, eating something they’ve never had before but in a country where they reside,” says Michael Elégbèdé, the chef and founder of Ìtàn, which in Yoruba means “story”.
“I wanted a situation where people are sat on a singular table,” he says. “They’re sharing the same meal – and through that, conversations are happening around food, around memory, around their reality and history.”
The six courses are served on earthenware – clay plates made by artisans in the south-west state of Ogun, in a deliberate pointer to how food was dished and preserved in past generations.
It’s part of the attempt by Elégbèdé, 31, not just to reclaim Nigerian food from foreign ideas of fine dining, but to help revive a deeper appreciation of its breadth and complexity among Nigerians too. Fine dining in Nigeria is dominated by European, Middle Eastern and Asian food, while in the wider food industry, the diversity of Nigerian food is barely on display.
Born in Lagos and relocated to Chicago when he was five after his mother won a US visa lottery, he spent years helping out at his mother’s restaurant and bakery in Illinois before training at the Culinary Institute of America and working in a string of Michelin-starred restaurants. Yet in elite spaces where he found western perceptions of Nigerian and African food to be unbearable.
“People would say, ‘African food, isn’t it just starch and pepper?’ or ‘it’s just spicy food’ – and that couldn’t be further away from reality,” Elégbèdé says, explaining that he set up Ìtàn in 2017, a year after returning to Nigeria, to counter such perceptions. “One of the biggest things driving me to come to Nigeria was that the American culinary space can be judgmental and racist.”
Another problem, he feels, is that commercial restaurants around Nigeria, don’t reflect the richness of local food, but largely offer a smaller range of choices, commercialised in Lagos and southern Nigeria. “We need to stop talking about jollof rice, we need to stop talking about suya [skewers of spicy meat]. They’re part of our food but it’s like .001% of the reality,” he says.
And while Nigerian food has enjoyed more success abroad, foreign restaurants dominate the upper ends of the food industry in Nigeria, Elégbèdé says. “It’s happened because we’ve grown up in a space and we’ve been taught that everything that is imported is better. We don’t value our food enough,” he says.
In some dishes, Elégbèdé highlights the migration of west African food, in part through the transatlantic slave trade: his own creative use of locally sourced ingredients reflects the way enslaved people had to recreate dishes with substituted ingredients.
The menu is seasonal, changing every six to eight weeks, often innovating popular dishes from across Nigeria – such as tozo, a fairly tough, grilled meat dish from the north, here reinvented in a tender form. A recent northern Nigeria based menu was a particular hit with guests he says.
For some, the food can conjure strong emotions. Last year a regular client brought her elderly parents.
“They’re in their 70s,” he recalls. “They were touching the plates, because we have our plates made like traditional wares … Both the mum and the father are like, ‘This is like what my grandmother used!’ Then a dish came that brought [the father] back to a meal he’d had in his childhood. He teared up and called me over and started praying for me – he prayed for me for 10 minutes. I was crying, it was overwhelming. It shows the deep and emotional level that food resonates on.”
The restaurant is not cheap – aside from private events, it offers set menus for $200 a head. Elégbèdé is hoping it can redefine fine dining without the trappings of western haute cuisine.
Over many years, the commercialisation of Nigerian food in the west has gradually taken off, both on a street level and through Michelin-starred restaurants. But the framing and presentation of African food in elite western settings sometimes feels divorced from the African context, Elégbèdé says.
“I think at the early points of my career, in many ways I was creating Nigerian food to fit into a western narrative. It’s like this beautiful white large plate and there’s Nigerian food curated in the centre. It looked beautiful – but one day I was just like, ‘This could be anything.’ Yes, there’s gbegiri [a rich, yellow soup made from beans] on it, but it could also be like lobster bisque. There’s nothing signing it to us.”
Even small signatures of African identity – like the indigenously-made tableware – work to decolonise ideas of African culture, he says.
Investment in food tourism, and support for small, beloved local restaurants, called “bukas” in parts of Nigeria, could foster a greater sense of value in local cuisine. “We don’t have one space in Lagos that is a hub for street food, where you go there because there’s a row of akara [a small fritter made of beans or cowpeas], of boli [grilled plantain], or corn, or [roasted] coconut – all of these amazing street food realities. It’s a shame,” he says.
At the more upmarket end, Ìtàn, he says, is his way of showing a way Nigerian food can be expressed.: “It’s exciting to be in a place with our own food – to play with it, in a way that is understandable to us, and yet fun and innovative.”